It’s been 100 years since four brothers — Leonard, Arthur, Julius and Milton — sat down at a table and, with the assistance of a fellow vaudevillian, reinvented themselves as Chico, Harpo, Groucho and Gummo. The centennial anniversary of that comic rebirth will be celebrated with Marxfest, a month-long series of screenings and discussions taking place in May.
Noah Diamond is one of six committee members running the events. They are “mostly New York theater people and media people who were sort of passionate about the Marx Brothers,” he said.
Why this obsession for comics long gone? “I think the simple answer is that they were so funny. If you watch their films today, they are still so surprising and so fresh.”
Diamond, an actor and writer who has performed as Groucho, noted that many of the events are free and others are moderately priced. “Hopefully if we sell a reasonable amount of tickets we won’t lose money.”
The brothers were Jewish, though not observant. Diamond says that in “The Cocoanuts,” Groucho is credited with being the first actor to speak in a natural New York/Jewish accent rather than the sort of high-tone faux British accent typical of the time. Harpo donated his harp to the State of Israel.
More information about events is available at marxfest.com
Comedy, explained Aristotle, has a vague history, because at first no one took it seriously. We cannot know for certain if Aristotle was deadpanning, but his observation would amuse Saul Austerlitz. According to Austerlitz, American film comedy has not been taken seriously, either. In fact, the author quips, it is American film’s “bastard stepchild.” With his latest book “Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy,” Austerlitz gives us a broad survey of the genre, hoping to spark debate.
There were few Jewish comedians in Aristotle’s day, but in American comedy, Austerlitz notes, Jews are “the only minority group overrepresented.” The title of his book is taken from a catch phrase by the gentile comic geniuses Laurel and Hardy, but on the cover of the book, it is Jewish comedians, The Marx Brothers, who are making a mess. For Austerlitz, the Marx Brothers are the embodiment of Jewish humor — “anarchic, absurdist, and ebullient” — existing in the face of a hostile or dismissive power structure.
Fifty-five years ago today, union activist and thespian Philip Loeb checked himself into the Taft Hotel in Midtown Manhattan under a false name and took a fatal dose of sleeping pills. Targeted by the insidious blacklist, Loeb could no longer find work in his beloved acting profession and had reached rock bottom.
Tonight, a panel of those who knew or have studied Loeb — including myself — will commemorate his career at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage.
Loeb’s suicide was especially devastating considering how greatly he had fallen. Known as an actor’s actor, Leob taught his craft to the likes of Kirk Douglas, Rosalind Russell and Don Rickles. He also performed in such Broadway hits as “Room Service” with the Marx Brothers, and directed its signature food delivery scene.